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15 October 2019

Team Corbyn are using an old, old Labour trick to get their people selected. Will it work?

The longstanding method of fixing Labour selections is to present local members with a false choice, but it is risky.

By Stephen Bush

Local Labour parties across the country are in uproar after the Labour party leadership removed several popular local candidates from contention in selections in vacant seats across the country. The process is being covered in detail by local newspapers and by the LabourList website.

It’s an introduction I might have written in 2001, 1987, 1979, 1966 and quite probably in 1906, when the parliamentary Labour party increased its strength in Parliament from just two MPs to 29.

Although when people talk about fixing selections they tend to refer to “parachutes” – when the ruling national executive committee uses its emergency powers to impose a candidate during the short campaign – the more commonly preferred method in the Labour party is what you might call the “managed” selection, in which the longlisting process is used to present local members with a choice between the preferred candidate(s) of the party leadership and what they hope will be seen as a manifestly unsuitable alternative.

The Corbynite majority on the NEC has voted to give itself expanded control over the longlisting and shortlisting processes, which ought to, in theory, facilitate the selection of many more impeccably Corbynite candidates. The reality is that most open selections are being won by people who are firmly on the Labour left (or, at least, are willing to make all the right noises) but they are closer to the Clive Lewis-Lloyd Russell-Moyle tendency of people who are ideologically aligned to Jeremy Corbyn but are inclined to independent political action whether it be on Europe or other issues. The important change that these shortlists are seeking to bring about is not to replace Corbynsceptics with Corbynites, but to replace Corbyn-aligned MPs with Corbyn-loyalist MPs.

There are two risks inherent in the process, however. The first is that if you do it too obviously then you increae the chances of a backlash. The most recent example of that came in 2014, when the Labour leadership shortlisted no local councillors for the vacant seat in Heywood and Middleton. Liz McInnes, a councillor from just outside the constituency and the closest thing to a genuine local candidate, won the selection comfortably.

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The second is that if you have too many favoured candidates you can end up losing focus and having a non-favoured candidate come through the middle. That also happened in 2014, when both Byron Taylor, Labour’s then trade union liaison officer, and Miriam O’Reilly, the former Countryfile presenter, were both shortlisted for Heywood and Middleton. Both candidates had powerful backers among the party’s power brokers, but they cancelled each other out, which further boosted McInnes.

The Labour leadership may be making a similar mistake. To do so many so quickly risks at least a few of the local parties deciding that to make a point they will vote to give the NEC a bloody nose and elect a non-favoured candidate, or vote tactically against whoever they perceive to be the leadership’s favourite.The trouble, too, with the broad powers the NEC has voted to give itself is you really do need a pretty strong level of local knowledge to be certain you’re pulling off the fix properly. They aren’t giving themselves a lot of time to get this process right and that the process doesn’t look to be particularly sophisticated beyond pruning councillors adds to the risk that someone unexpectedly popular gets through the net.

The other risk, which is more esoteric and perhaps more unlikely, is that Corbyn’s USP and electoral appeal runs through being not like other Labour politicians and that Labour is once again indulging in its old procedural fixes might be more risky to him that it would be if Labour were led by an avowed son of the system.

But the striking thing here isn’t what the Labour leadership is doing. It’s the manner, speed and scale – and the greater risks associated with it as a result.